- "Dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before":Poe, Degeneration, and Revolution in the Hebrew Imagination
In 1913, the Zionist Palestinian Hebrew periodical Ha-poel ha-tsa'ir (The young worker) published a six-part series entitled "Sifrut ḥolanit" (Degenerate literature), focused entirely on Edgar Allan Poe and his works.1 The essay series appeared in the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish settlement, over a month and a half, several years before the establishment of the British Mandate for Palestine and a year before the publication of the first Hebrew translation of any work by Poe. A decade later, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the fiery ideologue of Revisionist Zionism, translated Poe's "The Raven" in a version destined to become a classic of modern Hebrew translation. Jabotinsky's iconic translation, "Ha-orev," associated Poe, among his Hebrew readers, with the political right in the Yishuv and, later, in Israel. The fact that several Hebrew poets who engaged with Poe were aligned with Jabotinsky's politics only intensified this association.
Poe's regular appearance in the twentieth-century Hebrew cultural landscape both confirms and challenges expectations. The Zionist conceptualization of the world seems discordant with and even antithetical to Poe's aesthetic and thematic preoccupations: one is about the future, while the other looks always to the threatening past; one is about bright sunshine, reason, and action, while the other is mired in darkness, the irrational, and fear; one is about the New Jew, while the other is preoccupied with old specters. As I have argued elsewhere, this opposition is not quite what it seems; still, Edgar Allan Poe, with his crumbling edifices, his live burials, and his melancholy maidens, did not immediately correlate to the worldview of early twentieth-century Zionism and the sophisticated, strategic Hebrew translation apparatus helping to shape this ideology, which had little interest in such gothic works.2 Yet Poe was translated several times over, a fact that likely has something so do with his primary [End Page 47] identification, in Hebrew literary criticism, with French Symbolism. In Hebrew scholarship, Poe has been referred to as an "exiled" author and has been contrasted to Walt Whitman, a "truly American" poet.3 Thinking of Poe as American, though, may help explain his enduring presence in the twentieth-century Hebrew political imagination.
In this essay, I argue that Poe signifies a tense and surprising intersection of key concepts in early twentieth-century Zionist thought, namely degeneration and revolution. In the years preceding the rise of a more militant expansionist vision of the movement—what would come to be known as Revisionist Zionism—the left calls on Poe to illustrate the decadence and decay that threaten revolution. With the emergence of Revisionist Zionism, Poe is appropriated by the right to perform the opposite role, epitomizing the forward-looking revolutionary fervor integral to the success of Zionism. This article is concerned first and foremost with investigating how these two antagonistic types of Zionism found in Poe a substantive political interlocutor, yet engaged with him antithetically. I address Hebrew translations of Poe and Poe's influence on specific Hebrew authors and literary contexts only briefly. My focus, rather, is on the way readers subscribing to paradoxical perspectives of Hebrew political culture appropriated Poe's persona, as it was understood, and interpreted his aesthetics to support divergent visions for Zionism.
I begin by providing an overview of Hebrew translations of Poe and Poe's influence on original Hebrew poetry. I then examine closely three sets of texts to work through the place of Poe in Hebrew culture: the "Degenerate literature" essay series in Ha-poel ha-tsa'ir; two later newspaper articles on Poe and Jabotinsky by critics on opposite ends of the Israeli political spectrum; and a 1926 essay by Jabotinsky, titled "Al Amerika" ("On America"). On one hand, Poe's works seem obviously dissonant with fundamental Zionist values; on the other, these works have attracted and influenced Hebrew translators and poets throughout the twentieth century, including several figures well-known for their right-wing nationalism. Poe's presence in Hebrew literary culture and in the political sensibility associated with militant Zionism owes much to Jabotinsky, the dominant...